Speeches by Jim

Military Competence

August 28, 1986
Hon. James H. Webb Jr., Asst. Sec. of Defense for Reserve Affairs
Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco CA

On March 21, the members of the Commonwealth Club received a presentation by Dr. Richard Gabriel on the subject of “Military Incompetence.”

It is fair to say that I am speaking today as a result of Dr. Gabriel’s presentation, although I wish to make it clear from the outset that I am not here for the purpose of directly responding to it.

I wish also to say that although I presently serve as an assistant secretary of defense, my involvement with the American military has been continuous throughout my life, first as the son of a career officer, then as a Naval Academy midshipman and a Marine Corps infantry officer, and after that as a writer and journalist who frequently covers the military. Consequently, much of what I am going to say is based on personal observation.

I am conscious of the time limitations on my remarks, but I believe it is necessary to correct a number of serious misstatements made by Dr. Gabriel when he appeared before your club, since these remarks may have led many of you to some erroneous conclusions about the state of our military today. I will take them in the order outlined in your bulletin.

That the United States Army can put only 13 divisions into the field, and that it would take us 120 days to do so. The United States Army has 28 divisions, 18 active and 10 in the National Guard. The Marine Corps has an additional four, three active and one Reserve. This gives us a total of 32 divisions, some already in the field, some available immediately and some upon mobilization. Mobilization schedules vary, but it obviously takes more time to mobilize and deploy a division to Europe or Asia than it does to place it 20 miles from its doorstep.

That “39 percent of the American Army is black; another 40 percent is identifiable ethnic minorities.” As of June 1986, 26.9 percent of our Army soldiers were black, and another 7.3 percent were almost equally divided between Hispanics and “other” minorities. This equals 34.2 percent, not 79 percent. The overall figure for all four military services is 26.7 percent minority.

That “less than 2 percent of the U.S. Army has any college at all, never mind a college degree.” Ninety seven and seven-tenths percent of the commissioned officers in the United States military have a college degree. Ninety five and five-tenths percent of the enlisted force has graduated from high school as compared to 74 percent of their civilian peers. More than 24 percent of the enlisted force has successfully attended some level of college, and 2.4 percent of our enlisted force has graduated from college. These figures are better than they have ever been in the history of the U.S. military.

That “most West Point graduates are the sons of sergeants, majors and enlisted men. Their contact with civil society is minimal.” Officials at West Point indicate that from 8 to 12 percent of each class is comprised of the sons and daughters of career military personnel. Air Force Academy figures are somewhat higher, at about 20 percent. The Naval Academy has no such data. Two points come to mind. First, Dr. Gabriel does not understand the service academy selection process: Selection procedures for service academies are national in scope, depending for the most part on the nominations from members of Congress. And second, he wrongly degrades the opportunities that military offspring have to interact with what he terms “civil society.” As the son of a career military man, by the time I finished high school I had sat in the back of the bus with blacks in Alabama, sold newspapers on street corners in California, hitchhiked through Florida, packed groceries in a Nebraska farm town, fought under the lights against blacks, Indians and Hispanics, lived also in Missouri, Texas, Illinois, Arkansas and for two years in England as an exchange family with the Royal Air Force. Quite frankly, I had been exposed to more civil society than I could digest, and the typical military son or daughter of today is no different.

“Over a thousand officers in Vietnam were assassinated by their own men.” It appears that Dr. Gabriel’s sense of hyperbole has grown over the years, like a man telling a fond fish story. The allegation in his presentation to your club is an expansion of the claim in his book, “Military Incompetency,” that “In the U.S. Army alone, over one thousand officers and NCOs were killed or wounded by their own men.” The footnote for this unlikely statistic was a table in his first book, “Crisis in Command.”

This table shows 554 actual and 234 possible assaults with the intent to kill, do bodily harm or to intimidate. These 788 incidents covered all services, not just the Army, and were spread-among officers, NCOs, enlisted men and Vietnamese targets. Four hundred and thirteen of them had as an intended victim an officer or NCO. There were 86 deaths out of these 788 incidents. We put 2.7 million young men through military training, gave each of them a weapon, and put them into a war zone. That some small number of them would commit crimes directed at authority is to be expected and was not unique to the Vietnam War. I will address this matter shortly. For now, suffice it to say that 86 deaths from a multitude of categories does not add up to a thousand officers being assassinated by their own men.

I took some time with those rather unbelievable misstatements because, unfortunately, it is not unusual to see such remarks made by people who claim to be experts in the area of military reform. in fact, such distortions are central to the problem that military professionals face when trying to articulate their competence on the one hand and the need for improvement in the U.S. military on the other. One of the most dismaying legacies of our failure to win the Vietnam war has been the sprouting of a coterie of people without combat experience or service in operating units, and in many cases without military experience at all, who have been accepted as experts on such issues as leadership, unit cohesion and ground combat by an unwitting public.

The U.S. military consists of some 2.16 million, active duty men and women and another 1.6 million ready reservists, operating intricately complex equipment and weapon systems throughout the world. Our political commitments and our strategic posture demand readiness for almost any contingency, almost anywhere. Militarily, we operate from what might be called a worldwide “mobile defense.” Our forces are consolidated in a few “interior positions,” with the requirement to be vastly maneuverable on short notice.

No other country faces such a difficult task. We must develop costly, innovative strategic deterrents at the same time we are prepared to fight in such short-notice contingencies as we faced in Grenada. Certainly this causes us problems, and I have never hesitated to write or speak about them. But I would suggest that they are in the main not the problems that the large body of so-called military reformists attribute to the military, and in fact they are not solely military problems.

Two central themes seem to surface repeatedly in the analysis of our military by the reformists. The first is that things worked well in World War II, but that the system fell apart in Vietnam and has never recovered. The second is a largely uninformed adoration of the military of a few other countries.

Those who harken to World War II and lament our military performance in Vietnam claim that we fought better in that war, that in Vietnam the officer corps had become top-heavy and career oriented, leaving the enlisted men to do the dying, that the military was grossly over decorated, and that poor leadership allowed discipline to break down, as evidenced by fraggings and drug use among troops in Vietnam. The argument goes further to allege that these deficiencies have not been corrected and that a reform of the U.S. officer corps is needed.

I have a great appreciation for the service of those who fought in World-War II, but I believe the men in Vietnam were at least as good as those who fought in that war. Two-thirds of our World War II veterans were draftees. Two-thirds of our Vietnam veterans were volunteers, and three-quarters of those who died were volunteers. Mistakes were made on the battlefields in both wars. Consider the Navy gunners who shot down 23 of our own aircraft during the invasion of Sicily, killing 410 of our own airmen, or the Marines who were slaughtered on the invasion beach at Tarawa because reconnaissance had been conducted on the wrong island. And those who are not convinced that our soldiers did their job in Vietnam should ask the North Vietnamese how they lost 900,000 soldiers dead. Better yet, they might go to Hanoi and try to find someone my age.

It is alleged that Army efficiency decreased because the officer percentage of the force increased as the war went on. This is nonsense. The higher percentage of officers in the Army as the Vietnam War expanded has a very simple answer: Helicopter Doctrine. Helicopter pilots were, for the most part, warrant officers, and as the war progressed, so did the expansion of the helicopter fleet. Nor is it true that the officer corps held back and let the enlisted men do the dying in Vietnam.

Warrant officers had a casualty rate 30 times higher in Vietnam than in World War II. West Point’s Class of 1966 lost 34 men killed in action out of a graduating class of 579. In fact, with the exception of second Lieutenants, Army officers-had a higher casualty rate in Vietnam than in World War II in every rank up to and including Lieutenant Colonel. For ranks above Lieutenant Colonel, which was the rank of a battalion commander, it should be noted that Vietnam was a war fought at the company and platoon levels. The lower casualty rate among Colonels and Generals was a function of the war, not of the courage and dedication of those at that rank.

I have already mentioned assaults against authority, which have occurred in virtually every combat environment. In fact, I was raised on stories told by World War II veterans to the effect that a bad lieutenant had a 10-second window once an assault began before someone was going to remove him from action to save their own hide. Arthur Hadley makes a similar point in his current book, “The Straw Giant,” where he describes lying in a hospital ward in France toward the end of World War II and watching officers who had been assaulted by enlisted men being admitted to the ward. One of them was a winner of the Medal of Honor who had been jumped by rear-area troops who simply did not like officers. Such incidents became a focal point of attention in Vietnam for reasons more related to discrediting the war than analyzing the performance of the military.

The same point holds for drug use. Drugs were used in varying degrees by our soldiers in Vietnam, particularly toward the end of the war. Drugs were used by those in the same age group at home, also. My wife has some knowledge of this correlation, since she spent part of her tour in Vietnam as a nurse on a drug ward. Virtually every patient she treated had used drugs prior to joining the Army. I saw far more extensive drug use as a student at the Georgetown Law Center after I left the Marine Corps than I ever did in the military. The question is the means available to the military to control drug use, and again I will address that shortly.

Another allegation regarding the collapse of the military was that our soldiers were over decorated during the Vietnam War. This misstatement has been repeated so often, and in so many forums, as to have taken on a life of its own. James Fallows mentioned in his book, “National Defense,” that by 1971, we had given out almost 1.3 million medals for bravery in Vietnam, as opposed to some 1.7 million for all of World War II. Others have repeated the figure, including the British historian Richard Holmes in his recent book, “Acts of War.”

This comparison is incorrect for a number of important reasons. The first is that these totals included air medals, which were not medals for bravery. We awarded more than a million air medals to Army soldiers during Vietnam. Air medals were given on a points basis for missions flown, and it was not unusual to see a helicopter pilot with 40 air medals because of the nature of his job. If we compare actual gallantry awards, the Army awarded 289 Medals of Honor in World War II and 155 in Vietnam; 4,434 Distinguished Service Crosses in World War II and 846 in Vietnam; and 73,651 Silver Star Medals in World War II as against 21,630 in Vietnam. The Marine Corps, which lost 102,000 killed or wounded out of some 400,000 sent to Vietnam, awarded 47 Medals of Honor (34 posthumously), 362 Navy Crosses (139 posthumously) and 2,592 Silver Star Medals.

Second, although the Army awarded another 1.3 million meritorious Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medals in Vietnam, upon completion of World War II it authorized every single soldier who had received either a Combat Infantryman’s Badge or a Combat Medical Badge to also be awarded a meritorious Bronze Star. I have a copy of Army Regulation 600-45 to this effect. The Army has no data whatsoever regarding how many million soldiers received Bronze Stars through this blanket procedure.

The point, from all of the foregoing evidence, is that our military services did not collapse on the battlefield in Vietnam, either through performance or lack of adherence to traditional standards. Something else happened in the conduct of that war, which wounded the military and which, in the end, prevented it from doing its job.

Another favorite pastime of the military reformists is the adoration of other countries’ military systems as superior to our own. The British are continuously praised for their regimental system, their many military victories and, most recently, their victory in the Falklands. The Israelis are often mentioned as a near-perfect military system. The German performance in World War II is recalled as the best example of the leadership of the officer corps and a tactical style known as maneuver warfare.

With all due respect to our allies, and I do respect them, one need only put them under the same microscope the critics use for our own military to understand the injustice done to the American military performance of the past several decades.

The British have produced excellent soldiers for centuries, but they often have proved to be less than able military planners. In all due respect, the American military has never conceived any attack so fruitless as the first day on the Somme, when 56,000 British soldiers were killed or wounded at almost no cost to the Germans. Or an operation so boggled as Gallipoli, where as many British soldiers fell in one year as we lost in the entire Vietnam War. Or the senseless slaughter of the Passchendaele campaigns. Or the debacle at Dunkirk, where only Hitler’s personal intervention prevented the destruction of the entire British Army. Or the quick defeat at Hong Kong and the humiliation at Singapore, where the British outnumbered their attackers three to one and yet surrendered. Or the early North African Campaign, where they outnumbered Rommel four to one in men and 10 to one tanks, and were unable to defeat him.

And quite frankly, if the Americans had conducted the Falklands campaign in the exact same manner as the British, our press would still be criticizing us. British military planners had predicted that any future naval engagement would be conducted in the North Atlantic, and thus would be protected by land-based aircraft. The land-based air was not available in the Falklands. The carrier Invincible had been sold to the Australians and was only available by a stroke of luck. Harrier aircraft were forced to conduct an air defense of the naval task force, and their small flight radius cost the British dearly. Six ships went to the bottom of the sea. Another 18 were damaged by air attacks. 37 aircraft were lost, 12 of them due to non-combat operational mishaps. If one American carrier task force had been operating with its sophisticated aircraft and weaponry in this campaign, the Argentines would have been hard-pressed even to come within range of the ships they sank and damaged.

Most American commentators saw none of this. They wrote of the glowing traditions of the various British units. The Harrier made the cover of “Time” and “Newsweek.”

Similar reticence accompanies analysis of the Israeli Defense Force. They are good, and in fact their pilots are among the best in the world. But no American ground unit has suffered the percentage of friendly fire casualties that the Israelis did in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. And I can think of no American unit that has lost such a large percentage of its tanks in one attack, either. Nor are Israeli ground commanders trained in the use of close air support, or even the use of artillery, to the same level as virtually every American infantry lieutenant, Army and Marine. In fact, Marines are capable of calling close air support and artillery, and even naval guns, down to the level of squad leader.

The German officer corps during World War II, and to this day, has been superb. But our military reform movement has elevated maneuver warfare doctrine to the level of a cult. Mr. William Lind, a military theorist who had the opportunity to serve during Vietnam and declined, has written a “Maneuver Warfare Handbook,” analyzing different World War II battles. The matters, and through sheer tenure can become a “military expert.”

And so, even the best military unit, led by the best leaders, can become paralyzed from above. Our experience in Beirut is a classic example. The Marines on the ground were superb. I can personally testify to that, and I have been around military units of all services and numerous nations since the day I was born. The wisdom of their presence was debated from the outset, as was their mission. Because of the delicate, many-sided political environment, the Marines were not even allowed to construct defenses until they began to be attacked: our diplomats viewed foxholes and bunkers as provocative. When they did come under attack, the rules of engagement dictated by the political process were extraordinarily narrow. Congressional delegations constantly appeared, some members calling for more Marines and others calling for their withdrawal. Hundreds of reporters inundated the Marine positions, questioning every shot fired and whether the American role was going to escalate. DaNang, 1965, was the popular analogy among the reporters. The ground commander, who answered to a half-dozen different chains of command, recommended that we not support the Lebanese army with naval gunfire because his men were sitting ducks and would be the target of retaliation.

We did, and they were, as were the French and as were the Israelis two weeks later. So was it the military that caused all of those casualties, or were some superb infantrymen inhibited in their military functions because they were held hostage to an ongoing debate among the Congress, the administration, and the media?

The Army’s force structure problem in Europe is another example. in the 1970s, a number of military commentators, joined by several key senators and congressmen, claimed that the “tooth-to-tail” ratio of troops in Europe was out of balance, with too much support structure supporting too few combat troops. A common cry was that there were more communicators than infantrymen in Europe, although few were counting artillerymen and tankers as well. Under pressure, and constrained by a congressional end-strength cap which precluded additional soldiers being assigned to Europe, the Army adjusted its balance by taking out combat support units and replacing them with combat units.

This has resulted in a force structure dislocation where the combat units now do not have sufficient combat service support units-medical, maintenance and key logistics units-to sustain them in a conventional encounter. in effect, we now have a “tail-to-tooth” imbalance. This is operational paralysis, forced down the throat of the commanding general who would be required to fight a European war. But there should be no mistake about who will be blamed if things go wrong.

And so it is with manpower policy. The power centers that fund, shape and govern our military decided more than a decade ago to abandon the draft. Although the quality of our personnel is now quite good, our manpower is highly expensive and as a result, our active forces have shrunk to a level lower than anyone dreamed when the all-volunteer system was created.

We have serious manpower demands and problems with manpower flow if we should be required to commit our forces in a conventional encounter. The Soviet Union has an active force that is two and a half times the size of our own, a Ready Reserve that is five times the size of ours, and a Standby reserve that is 50 times the size of ours.

The typical Soviet recruit is paid $5 a month. The average American enlisted man makes more than $24,000 a year, and that does not include the value of his retirement. Half of our enlisted soldiers are married, as opposed to 19 percent when the draft was in place. Costs for infrastructure, housing and “quality of life” programs are increasing, as are costs of recruitment in a dwindling manpower pool. The same political forces that supported the volunteer concept are now attempting to reduce further the size of the active force and to alter the retirement system, because it costs too much for manpower. But who will receive the blame if manpower quality declines and recruiting quotas are not met?

These are the sorts of issues that the military reform movement should be addressing, and they should be addressed from the umbrella of national policy, not solely from the narrow perspective of the implementers of that policy.

None of this implies for a moment that we should cease our focus on those intangibles that are so unique to the military environment: such things as duty, discipline, leadership and tactics. But I have just mentioned the interplay of political forces that can affect an officer’s ability to act in these matters, and I believe that those who have criticized the military for its failures in these areas should focus on the inhibitors of excellence that a military leader cannot control. It is patronizing,-and indeed foolish, to suggest that people who have never served in an operating unit should be the arbiters of excellence regarding these key points, and yet that is what has too frequently occurred in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Our political system should encourage the military to pick its leaders according to their dedication to such military intangibles as duty, discipline and leadership, rather than their ability to deal with the political system itself, and then trust their recommendations and actions. It should also make them ultimately responsible for their programs, allowing them to succeed or be replaced.

Today’s leaders, the ones now coming to the rank of general, are unusually well qualified. Many have spent two and three tours in combat and then years after that in introspection, examining the very issues the military reform movement has been raising. They performed in Vietnam. They have performed far better than most Americans comprehend since Vietnam. They can do the job, and they should be given the opportunity to succeed without the micromanagement of individuals who do not fully understand the military environment.